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~ Renaissance History ~
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In The Beginning
The best place to start is with the word Renaissance. It was first used by Historians around 1840, to describe the period from the 14th to 16th centuries. The word is French for "rebirth", implying a rebirth or rediscovery of rational civilization after the Medieval centuries.
It is difficult to establish a clear dividing line between the Medieval and Renaissance time periods. But around the early 1400, Europeans became interested in studying the world, their own humanity and exploring new lands. The Renaissance arose from a very violent political era, and sprang into humanistic study, art, religious celebration, scientific discoveries and of course corruption and civic glorification.
Historians mark Italy as the starting point in such cities as Naples, Genoa and Venice. Then spreading through out Europe. These cities also became the trade centers between Europe and the Middle East. Expanding their understanding of the world and undoubtedly accepting the influences of these new lands and incorporating them into their own culture.

Consequently visitors to these Italian centers immersed themselves in this 'new culture'. Students began to fill the cities to acquire knowledge, artists came seeking fame and merchants flooded the country looking for their own fortunes. Returning to their own homes, they brought these Renaissance ideas and concepts with them.
What Is The Renaissance
While it is often marked by it's contributions to art, sculpture and architecture, the Renaissance is much more than this. Paintings prior to this point were focused on religious topics. They developed into more realistic composets depicting the true natural world and the depth of it's people. William Shakespeare's plays were the toast of the town and are a good example of how the focus of the human condition became the interest of the time.
This became evident in the importance placed on human values instead of religious doctrine. And we can thank the Humanists for this approach. The Humanists believed that buy studying the classic works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, they could discover a similar spirit that valued innovation rather than focusing on the world after death. These people were devout Christians unlike their Classical Scholar counter-parts. But like their ancient counter-parts, their approach to secular values often put them at odds with the political and religious establishments.
Spreading these concepts became easier thanks to Johann Gutenberg, who created a small devices that moved small blocks of letters across paper to mass-produce printed material. This first printing press allowed inexpensive books to be shared with anyone outside the clergy and select scholars. Consequently literacy spread through Europe. Gutenberg, born in Germany about 1400 was a goldsmith. In 1448 he created molds and borrowed money to acquire a press. Setting the molds upon paper in the press he created the first mass-produced book, a 1,282 page Bible.
While Gutenberg didn't get rich from his invention as patents did not exist in the 1400s. But his influence spread and by 1500 there were near 2,000 printing presses in Europe and about 40,000 different books had been published. As usual, some religious and government officials denounced Gutenberg and his invention. Fearing it would spread bad ideas and unrest amongst the lower classes. Thankfully these people were in the minority and with literacy spreading, so was knowledge and wisdom.
Social Impacts
While social classes already existed in Europe, the lines became more clearly defined during the Renaissance. And just like today, we can thank literacy and education for the division. There were four defined classes in the Renaissance era.
  • The nobles who owned much of the land which was often bestowed upon them or their families for chivalries, deeds and service to the church or crown of their governing establishments. They lived outside the cities on large estates and lived according the rules of chivalry.
  • The newly rich merchants who controlled commerce and therefore often controlled the government by marrying into noble families. Much like today, the old noble families held the nouveau rich merchants in disdain most of the time. But the merchants knew where the real influence existed and they worked to become patrons of the arts and win favor from the general public. And they were very successful at doing this.
  • The middle class often owned the shops where these merchants sold their goods. Or they were part of the growing professionals of the time. Accountants, doctors, barristers and scholars for instance.
  • Just as today, the lower class workers and small farmers. Their lives were difficult and they were at the mercy of their employers who had strict rules for them to follow. Violation of these rules could result in wages being withheld, or being discharged from their job entirely.
  • As with any culture we can't ignore the 'unspoken' peasant class. These people often lived outside the cities and away from the growing cultural expansion. They were simple folk who lived off the land and were often used and abused by merchants or corrupt nobles.
Renaissance Expansion
In the late half of the 15th Century, European countries began exploring their world outside their known limits. This interest can be linked to the influence of the Renaissance, but more so to the expansion of opportunities that this time period created. Europeans were interested in setting up new trade routes as well as new trading posts with such places as Asia and their spice-producing merchants.
Spice was a critical product to this time period. The only way to preserve meat was to add salt to it. Spices helped to hide the salty taste and for the nobles, it also allowed their accomplished cooks to experiment and create new tasty dishes. On the other side, these spices also helped to conceal the taste of meat that had gone bad.
It was at this time that the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Turks, around 1453. This cut off the land between Europe and Asia. A sailing school was established in Portugal by Prince Henry the Navigator. The school encouraged exploration and worked with the Noble class to fund ventures to the African coast.
Bartholomeu Dias was the first sailor to reach the southern tip of Africa. His crew refused to go any farther and they turned back for Europe. In 1496, Dias assisted Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese sailor to plan another voyage around Africa to India. Christopher Columbus set out to reach India by sailing west, but the Portuguese king would not sponsor his voyage. Columbus turned to Spain and acquired funding from King Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1492 he reached the Caribbean islands, but did not realize his mistake. Even today we refer to the Caribbean islands as the West Indies.
Aristotle theorized that the Earth was round and Columbus believed he had proven the great scholar correct. At least he died believing that's what he had done. But the theory wasn't proven until Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese sailor explored Asia. Magellan requested funding from the King who denounced and rejected him. Magellan in turn denounced his allegiance to Portugal and sought sponsorship from Spain. In 1519 Magellan left Spain with five ships. After fourteen months, he and his armada finally found the southern opening to the Pacific Ocean. The stormy waters are now known as the Strait of Magellan.
Magellan expected to find Asia a few hundred miles beyond South America, but of course did not realize the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. 12,600 miles later he reached land in 1521, six months at sea and landing in Guam. They traveled south to the Philippines where Magellan discovered his servant could understand the native language. At this point Magellan realized that his servant was the first person to have traveled completely around the world. Magellan was killed in the Philippines by a local warrior who persuaded him to defeat his rival. Magellan's crew denounced the challenge as pointless and refused to participate. Magellan was killed by a poisoned arrow and died. His remaining crew left and headed home to Spain. Only one of the five ships, and only 18 of the original 265 men completed the nearly three year journey.